State of Customer Service in America


–My Kindle: Lost in Chicago & Found in Ashville, North Carolina


Customer Service Is About Customer SatisfactionFor service businesses, quality is all about customer service. When there is a customer service issue, companies that rise to the challenge create a bond between the firm and its customers. As such, customer service is the new marketing. This I learned from an experience that I had this summer.

Since we are passionate about tennis, in August we took a trip to Cincinnati where we saw an ATP tournament. We booked our round-trip flight from Chicago with United Airlines.

When we got home and unpacked, I realized that my Kindle was missing. I last recalled having it in my possession on the return flight, when I had put it into the seat-back pocket in front of me. I immediately got on the Internet, and attempted to look up United’s customer service phone number.

I found an 800 number, but became increasingly frustrated as I navigated countless phone trees, unable to successfully make contact with a human being. My frustration turned to anger when I learned that to communicate with United’s Customer Service department about a past incident, I either had to email customer relations or post a written letter.

The next day, I played golf and recounted my story. I ranted about the quality of customer service in the U.S. One of my fellow golfers mentioned that he knew someone who worked in a management position at United. He offered to intervene on my behalf. I accepted his kind gesture.

The next day, I got an email from a senior customer service representative at United. She did everything within her power to locate my Kindle. I got the sense that if my e-reader had found its way to Brazil, she would have tracked it down.  I learned that there were dozens of Kindles in the lost-and-found at United’s Chicago O’Hare terminal. In addition, I discovered that many travelers leave iPads and other electronic gadgets on airplanes.

Despite United’s valiant efforts to track down my errant, electronic device, the company was unable to find it. However, three months later—during the Christmas holidays—I got an email from Amazon, indicating someone had found my e-reader. Amazon gave me the individual’s phone number, and informed me that we would have to work out the terms of its return. I contacted the individual. He told me that he bought my Kindle at a flea market in Ashville, NC. He had paid $25 for it. He said that he tried to download a book from Amazon, but was advised that his newly purchased device had been stolen. Thus, he was unable to use it to buy books.

I agreed to pay the cost of shipping, if he would return it to me. He consented to this offer. I asked him how I would know where to send the check. He told me to  “look at the return address.” Within a week, I got a package containing my Kindle. The return address stated:

Santa Claus

Ashville, NC

My customer service contact at United was delighted and amazed at the story of how I got my Kindle back. She said that she would pass it along to those who needed to know. Two weeks later, I got a $100 voucher from United applicable to any flight that I book.

There are several lessons that I learned from this experience:

  • E-mail is an impersonal, frustrating medium for expressing customer service issues
  • In the final analysis, customer service is about customer satisfaction—on this count, United Air Lines won me over.
  • Most—but not all—people are honest
  • NEVER place anything of value within the seat-back pockets of airplanes.

What is your experience with the state of customer service in America?


  1. youngperson says:

    I like your final point. :) That said, I disagree with your ultimate appreciation of United’s customer service. Had you not had that personal connection through your golf buddy, chances are that you never would have had any meaningful contact with the airline’s customer service department. Also, I think that in terms of email, it is not the medium itself that is the problem. Talking on the phone to an unknowledgeable or dimwitted customer service rep tends to be no more fruitful than sending an email to a generic company address into the netherworld of the Internet.

    Moreover, I have actually had some of my most positive customer service experiences via email. On two occasions I purchased Groupons for restauratns that shut down before I had the opportunity to redeem them. In both cases, I emailed Groupon’s general customer support email address, and within a few hours I received a reply and a reimbursement on my credit card account. With email, I only had to spend a few minutes of my own time to write a message explaining my dilemma, and then Groupon employees were responsible for directing my email to the right person who could take care of my problem. That took LESS of my personal time than a phone call would have, in which I’m sure I would have had to explain my problems multiple times to different people while getting transferred to various departments within the company, getting put on hold every time. United (or any company) could make their email system efficient and effective if they only dedicated the time, resources, and training into creating a strong customer service team. If anything, I would say that Amazon deserves kudos for helping you get back your Kindle! Perhaps it’s the younger, Internet-based companies like Amazon and Groupon that understand how to create efficient customer service departments in the modern age, while older companies like United and stuck in outmoded and ineffective systems that merely create frustration for all!

    • Thank you for your comments. You make some excellent points. In particular, I agree with your contention that what matters—in terms of customer satisfaction—is the knowledge, skill and training possessed by the company representative. I also agree with you that email can be an effective means of communication, as proven by your experience with Groupon.

      However, there is one caveat. It can work well for straightforward issues. But for dealing with complex problems—or issues where the customer has a sense of urgency such as my feeling that time was the enemy in locating my lost kindle—I believe that direct phone communication with a knowledgeable human being is preferable to email.

      I don’t agree with your suggestion that whether a company is “new or old” determines their effectiveness. Last week, I had an email exchange with a customer service representative from LinkedIn. He indicated that what I was looking for wasn’t available, but that it would be put on the R&D queue. In addition, he suggested that I sign-up on the company’s blog to get ideas from the user community. I spent ½ hour experimenting and figured out how to use the software to accomplish what I wanted to do. Again, there are a couple of theories regarding why I didn’t get what I wanted from the customer service rep: 1) he lacked the knowledge; 2) the problem was complex, and so I was ineffective in describing it using email. I even sent him a screen shot, but that didn’t seem to help.

      In conclusion, I think that email, on-line chat and phone support all have their rightful place. The challenge for today’s company is to find the right combination of media to use for supporting customers, but at a reasonable cost.

      • Paul Oscar says:

        Hi Tim,
        Glad you received your Kindle back. Did United agree to add a live chat or phone line so customers can talk with someone 24 / 7? I agree with you that superior customer service is a marketing tool that can differentiate an organization. As an example, I do not take my laundry to the cheapest place in town. I deal with people that make it easy to business with and obviously do a good job at cleaning clothes. Same logic for airlines. I will pay somewhat of a premium to have a pleasant experience.

        • Hi Paul,
          Thanks for your perceptive comments. I agree that live chat and phone lines are powerful weapons in the war to win the hearts and minds of customers.

          Also, I can relate to your experience in finding the “best” laundry. We have a 10 year-old Honda, Odyssey that has been serviced by the same Honda dealer for all those years. My wife has developed a personal relationship with one of the customer service managers. When she calls, he will do everything within his power to accommodate her requests. When it comes time to buy a new car, we plan to buy it from that dealer, because of the high level of customer service provided.

  2. Timothy,
    Thanks for sharing.
    Next time you go travelling, better be safe than sorry when bringing your kindle with you.
    Lab4Apps, a young start up just released its app today for all Kindle Fire users helping them retrieve their lost or stolen Kindle Fire. The app will allow Kindle Fire owners to locate their Kindle Fire instantly if it’s ever lost or stolen, using state-of-the-art Wi-Fi triangulation. Once downloaded, the owner is asked to provide only an e-mail address and a password to setup their account on The website can be accessed from any Internet browser to locate their Kindle Fire’s whereabouts immediately.

    Kindle owners of all ages will be able to find their missing Kindle effortlessly. The app requires no technical knowledge and seamlessly enables and connects to the Internet automatically. Ensuring that the service can retrieve the Kindle’s location when requested by the owner.

    Should your Kindle fall into the wrong hands, Locate My Kindle’s remarkable tamper-proof technology relentlessly protects your device. By preventing any unauthorized attempts to remove the software, it remains fully functional and able to report your Kindle’s location when you need it most. This groundbreaking app can also display the Kindle’s previous location history on a detailed interactive map showing the date, time, latitude, and longitude as well as the address of the current location. You never have to worry about misplacing your Kindle ever again with Locate My Kindle installed.

    So Timothy and all other Kindle owners, if your Kindle is a fire edition, then check out the locate my kindle app on amazon. Better safe than sorry :-)

    • Sorry, but my Kindle was not the Kindle Fire, so your Ap would not apply. Sounds like the ap is an electronic version of the child harness that people use to keep their children tethered to them.

  3. James Brown says:

    I work in a call center. I’m currently on a customer service account. One of the metrics to measure our performance is average handle time. We are encouraged to get consumer’s concerns addressed in less than 5 minutes. No rapport building with the customer just straight to business and if you can’t solve the problem get them to a different department that may or may not help them. To improve customer service the first thing that should be done is the elimination of the automatic answering system. The call should be answered by a human being. At least a third of the calls I get should have went to another department because the customer didn’t understand the options. Which leads to the second thing. Companies should train customer service reps to handle any and all customer issues. One call one person solves any issue. The reason companies don’t do this is one reason. Profit. The shorter the call the fewer reps are needed to handle the calls. Bottom line, from what I see, customer satisfaction gets a lot of lip service but companies aren’t putting their money where their mouth is.

    • You make some good points. I, too, get frustrated by call trees that require me to navigate endless paths. On more than one occasion, I simply say something like “human being” or “customer representative” hoping that this command will direct my call to a human being. In setting up a structured phone tree, I agree that the company’s motivation is to “increase profits.” But isn’t this a primary objective for all for-profit corporations? Having said this, I agree with you: navigating through endless phone trees is a frustrating experience for the consumer, and it usually doesn’t result in increased customer loyalty. Your suggestion to cross train customer service representatives to handle a variety of calls has a lot of merit.
      Thanks for your comments!

      • James Brown says:

        Thanks fr the reply Tim. You’re right the purpose of a business is profits. And in the short run profits can be maximized by not spending enough on customer service. But in the longer term, money spent on improving customer service will yield an excellent rate of return. As word of mouth spreads companies with excellent customer service will increase market share and profits. For example, if I need something in the line of hardware for a household project, I am more than willing to pay a little more at a local hardware store where I can get advice on what I need vs going to a big discount store like Walmart where the products cost less but customer service doesn’t exist.


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